Cornelia Li for Reader's Digest
In the last moments before I climbed into the Cessna, I turned and faced a young bearded man who was pointing a video camera at my face. I wore a jumpsuit made of panels of fluorescent orange and green fabric, the colors faded by years of sun and wind. A pair of goggles and a leather helmet were strapped on my head. “Why are you here?” the man asked me.
I took a deep breath. “My name’s Eva,” I said, speaking to the camera lens, “and I’m here to face my fear of falling from heights.”
The small crowd that had gathered around me oohed and cheered as I crawled into the tiny plane, awkward in my elaborate harness. Only the pilot had a seat—all the others had been removed—and I sat on the floor behind him, facing backward, spooning with my divemaster, Barry. Another pair climbed in beside us: divemaster Neil and his charge, Matthew, a first-time skydiver like me.
They sat by the open doorway, and Matthew and I bumped fists as the little Cessna rattled its way down the gravel runway. Matthew looked elated. I knew I was supposed to be excited, too, but I couldn’t get there. For the moment, I existed in a bubble of cold calm. That, I figured, was preferable to the likely alternative: wild, hair-tearing panic.
I was acting on a very popular idea: the notion that facing one’s fears is the key to conquering them. In their third year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter and his classmates are taught by Professor Remus Lupin to face down their fears by laughing at them. In The Sound of Music, the abbess tells Maria she must confront her feelings, not hide out in the abbey. And in the novel Dune, in the iconic Bene Gesserit “Litany Against Fear,” Frank Herbert wrote, “I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me … Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Fear, Herbert wrote, was the mind-killer. I wanted my mind to live.
I’d arrived at the small airstrip in the Canadian village of Carcross several hours earlier. Among its few claims to fame is the Carcross Desert, billed as the world’s smallest, a tiny collection of soft, rolling dunes surrounded by snow-etched mountains and boreal forest. Every summer, a skydiving outfit based in British Columbia caravans up here for a couple of weeks and offers people the chance to jump out of a plane, plummet through free fall, deploy a parachute, and eventually land in the forgiving embrace of this tiny patch of sand.
The pro skydivers live by the airstrip, just outside the village. The vibe of their encampment is somewhere between summer weekend campout and itinerant circus troupe. They gather in a jumble of tents, U‑Hauls, cars, RVs, and trucks loaded with campers. Barry is their patriarch. When I met him, he’d been jumping for 39 years, including more than 2,000 tandem jumps with clients. He had gray hair and a gray moustache, a big belly and a bigger voice. He’s not what you picture when you think “professional thrill-seeker,” but I found his age and experience more comforting than any young gun could have been. As they say in Alaska, there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.
Cornelia Li for Reader's Digest
When I pulled up, just before 10 a.m., most people were gathered in camp chairs around a fire. I was invited to sit down, offered tea and a hunk of fry bread. I was here because my three most potent physical fears are of heights, speed, and falling. And there was nothing, I figured, that combined all three as effectively—or as horrifically—as skydiving. My notion was to take a blitzkrieg approach to facing my fears. I would force myself to do the scariest thing I could think of, in a full sensory assault on my fear response, and if I came out the other side, I would be … changed, right? Empowered. That was the idea. So far, I just felt sick and scared.
Barry introduced us first-time jumpers to the gear we’d be using, explained how the various safety mechanisms worked, and informed me that if I tried to grab on to the plane as we jumped, latching on in a last-minute panic, he would break my fingers to release my grip if he had to. His tone suggested that it wouldn’t be his first time doing so.
I signed the bluntest waiver form I’d ever seen. “Sport parachuting is not perfectly safe,” it read. “We can not and do not offer any guarantees. We do not guarantee that either or both of your parachutes will open properly. We do not guarantee that individuals at SkydiveBC North or Guardian Aerospace Holdings Inc. will function without error. We do not guarantee that any of our backup devices will function properly, and we certainly do not guarantee that you won’t get hurt. You may get hurt or killed, even if you do everything correctly.” The form did nothing to calm me down. I signed my name and handed it over.
Barry showed me how we would enter and exit the Cessna. The plane was tiny, and when we launched ourselves through its low doorway, we would be harnessed together. There was a careful protocol to follow. I’d pictured us stepping out of a full-height doorway, or even a yawning, garage-style opening, like in the movies. But the small plane, plus our joined bodies, demanded an awkward crouch-and-roll. For some reason, the sheer impossibility of the maneuver—really, I was going to tandem-somersault out of a tiny opening in midflight?—calmed me down. This couldn’t be real. It seemed like a joke.
Then, suddenly, it was time. I pulled on my fluorescent jumpsuit, my helmet, and my goggles, and I got cinched into my harness. I faced the camera, declared my intentions, and climbed into the plane.
We were airborne, rising up above the desert, Carcross, and Bennett Lake stretching away into the mountains. The landscape below me was familiar, comforting. Countless times I had hiked it, biked it, paddled it, driven it, flown over it in commercial jets. I’ve never minded flying; it was the falling I was worried about. I tried to breathe deeply and focus on the scenery. There was the train bridge. There was the beach. There was the highway leading home.
The ascent to 10,000 feet seemed to take hours, and as we climbed, the weird out-of-body calm I’d felt on takeoff seeped away.
Cornelia Li for Reader's Digest
It was like coming out of shock, losing that numbed protection and feeling the full pain of an injury for the first time—only instead of pain, I felt a terror that rose through my body until it reached my lungs and my throat and my brain and threatened to choke me.
Barry, behind me, sensed my growing tension—no surprise, since we were pressed together like a pair of lugers on a sled. He squeezed my shoulder periodically and pointed out landmarks below. As we neared jump height, the Cessna circled a large cloud, skirting its edge.
“You might be a lucky girl and get a cloud jump,” Barry said. I did not want a cloud jump.
The pilot announced that we were nearly in position for Neil and Matthew’s jump. They shimmied toward the gaping hole where the plane’s door should have been and nudged themselves awkwardly into a spooning crouch on the lip of the doorway.
Seeing them inch toward open space was nauseating, and I looked away. I couldn’t watch them vanish into the sky; I stared at the plane’s riveted metal wall instead. The pilot dipped the plane slightly to the right, tipping Neil and Matthew out the door, and then, liberated of their combined 270 pounds, the Cessna sprang back suddenly to the left. My stomach clenched and jerked, and I swallowed hard.
Now it was our turn. Barry directed me to roll over and scuttle into position as the pilot got us lined up for another jump. My breath came fast; I struggled for control. I desperately wanted to shout, No, no, I changed my mind. I don’t want to do this. I clenched my jaw. I knew that if I said the word, they would take me back down to the ground, keep my money, and let me walk away. The whole day would be for nothing.
Eventually, I got myself in place, hunched over with my kneecaps level in the front of the door frame, Barry behind me. I tried to unfocus my eyes so I couldn’t see the opening and the endless air next to me, the ground far below. Over the roar of the wind and the plane, Barry shouted last-minute adjustments to the pilot, getting us lined up just right. “Give me five left! … Five right!” The seconds stretched out while I fought the urge to quit. I had the sensation of trying to hold up some massive weight, my strength ebbing away, moment by moment.
Finally, Barry put his right foot out on the narrow metal step fixed to the plane’s fuselage below the open door frame and yelled for me to do the same. It took me three tries—the wind first blew my foot behind, then in front, before I lodged it against his. Next, I had to scooch around so my left knee pointed out over the lip of the doorway and lock both my hands on to my harness, gripping a pair of handles at shoulder height. I was glad to have something to hold on to. Ever since Barry had promised to snap my finger bones if need be, I’d had a recurring vision of myself reaching out in panic as we exited the plane and fastening on to the door frame or a strut with a viselike grip fueled by fear, pulling the Cessna off-balance and risking everyone’s lives.
All I could do was stay limp and trust Barry to get us in the air—actually participating in our exit from the plane was beyond me. I felt him rocking back and forth to get our momentum up, heard him yell something, but I was deep in my own head. Then we rolled out of the plane and into space.
Barry had urged me to keep an eye on the Cessna as I somersaulted out of it. Watching the plane appear to fall away from you when you were the one plummeting was, he assured me, one of the coolest parts of a jump. But I had no desire to watch the earth and the sky spin around me. I kept my eyes shut hard until I could feel that Barry had stabilized us in free fall.
Cornelia Li for Reader's Digest
I felt him tap me on the shoulder, then again, and yell something in my ear, and I peeled my hands off the harness handles and thrust my arms out wide like I was supposed to. I tried to think about arcing my body into a slight bow: feet together, head up, my belly pointing the way down. I stared at the ground rushing up at us, and suddenly I opened my mouth and spoke for the first time since we’d started the flight up.
“Holy ——!” I yelled, and the wind seemed to tear the words out of my mouth to make room for more. “Holy ——! Holy ——! Holy ——!!” A small part of my brain noted, amazed, that I could even hear myself, could even produce audible speech, with the force of the air roaring by me. (Later, I would learn that we had reached a peak speed of 101 miles per hour.)
I screamed those same two words over and over through our entire 37 seconds of free fall. Once I got started, I couldn’t seem to stop. My voice got hoarse, my throat raw. I kept hollering. Dimly, over the sound of my own swearing, I heard Barry say something about our chute, and then a force seemed to pluck at us from above—not a hard jerk, but now my feet were dangling below me and I could feel my weight pushing down on the crotch straps of my harness.
I stopped yelling. Barry reached forward and offered me the straps that controlled the parachute, to let me steer. It took me a couple of tries to put my shaking hands through the loops, and I was too weak to pull effectively. I could feel him pulling the cords for me from above.
Other jumpers had described the long, leisurely parachute descent after free fall as “relaxing.” But I couldn’t relax—I was too aware of my weight in the harness, my feet dangling, the familiar landmarks far below me. There was the train bridge. There was the beach. There was the highway leading home. Barry spun us around, and I felt sick, hated him for a moment, and quavered that I didn’t like that. The fall went on and on. Finally, we neared the desert, and Barry took over steering entirely.
He twisted us from side to side, tacking like a sailboat to shed speed as we came in over the dunes. Then he gave me the signal to pull my knees up (I did my shaky best) and pull down hard on the chute straps. I braced for impact, but my feet never touched—suddenly I was on my belly in the sand, Barry on top of me. He released the right waist clip so he could roll off of me as the ground crew approached, cheering, and freed me completely.
The crew and other jumpers clustered around; someone helped me to my feet. I tried to smile, but my cheeks and lips felt as wobbly as my arms and legs. I stared at the sand and dug around inside myself, trying to find some pride in my accomplishment, some kind of silver lining with which to cover up the apparently bottomless chasm of fear I carried inside me.
Later, after I’d stripped off my harness and helmet and jumpsuit, after I’d calmed down enough to attempt the drive home safely, I did find some pride. I had done it, after all. I hadn’t backed down, pulled the plug at the last minute, and forfeited my money and my dignity. I hadn’t clutched on to the airplane as we rolled out of it, killing us all. I hadn’t screamed the entire way down.
These were small victories. But I knew now that if I was going to achieve a real transformation, to rearrange my relationship with my fears, it would not be through shock and awe. One $400 skydive was not going to solve my problems. I needed to be smarter, more systematic, more scientific.
There was more than one way to face my fears. If necessary, I would try them all.
Buy a copy of Eva Holland’s book, Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear.